Longing for the struggle

Column by Hallie Beard, Opinion Editor

Most old souls would probably agree there’s a charm to the technologies of the past, even with all their glitches, frustrations and inconveniences.

Recently, I read a short story in which a man struggled to make an important phone call on a hotel pay phone, something millennials might now view as a bulky, foreign relic. One of the main points of conflict for the character was simply having enough quarters to stay on the line long enough.

Pay phones were phasing out during my childhood as cordless and cell phones began to take over, so though I remember seeing them, I never had to struggle like the character in the story to ration my dimes and nickels for a distance call.

The character’s frustration was so tangible, though, and it made me nostalgic for that kind of dated technology.

It got me thinking, too: with all our glorious technological advances, are we losing the ability to deal with physical, material conflicts?

If a writer my age were to create an updated version of the story I read, what would the central conflict be? Someone not being able to find a phone charger? Well, if that person were in a public place, it probably wouldn’t be difficult to find someone friendly enough to lend their iPhone for a call. Sure, we can have annoying and ill-timed technological problems, but there’s no comparison when it comes to the physical frustration of dealing with a machine that simply won’t work.

Because we spend so much time on social media and communicating via phones and computers, many of the conflicts we face are completely virtual. In theory, someone can lie in bed for an entire day and never speak to another human, but initiate and resolve a handful of electronically written conversations and arguments during their period of vegetating. In one sense, it’s great. In another, it’s terribly sad and honestly very boring.

In the old days of letter-writing, pay phone-dialing and map-using, so much depended on having reliable information. If you needed to make a call, you’d better have someone’s number memorized or be near an updated phone book, and have the exact change to potentially pay for the call. If someone invited you out to a place you’d never heard of, simply Googling the address and directions on the way was not an option. What if you didn’t have a map, didn’t know your way around and couldn’t get anyone to tell you reliable directions? It seems like, in many of those situations, you’d simply be out of luck.

If something like an  electromagnetic pulse were to happen and we suddenly couldn’t use our electronics, would people my age even know where to begin in gathering information?

Sometimes I wonder if the newest generation even learns how to write and address letters anymore, or make a physical copy of something. Reading a map is out of the question – I’m embarrassed to say that, because I’ve never had the need, I have no idea how to get around a city or state using a paper map, save for well-marked subway lines.

In the world of instant pleasure and available solutions to any electronic problem, where’s the conflict? Where’s the consequence? I admit, since I’m mainly thinking about this in terms of narrative potential, my view is limited and problematic. Of course we can still face serious issues in terms of communication and technology, but as the focus for a story, movie, etc., do they hold any weight?

This is probably something all generations grapple with – for all I know, writers in the 1950s pondered how to pull off a journey/voyage story without the life-or-death risks of traveling via horse and buggy. Maybe they felt the modern car was too convenient, too perfect for a point of conflict until they found enough issues to garner some suspense.

Maybe it’s just my personal tastes, but I have a hard time picturing a sophisticated, literary masterpiece that incorporates terms like “iPhone” or “Snapchat filter.” In 50 or 100 years, those terms might have the retro charm “pay phone” has now.

I’m grateful to live in this era, and I know complaining about our technology being too helpful, too handy, is privileged to the highest degree.

But, you have to admit – there’s something magical and exciting about putting in effort to get what you desire, whether that’s taking care of a record, taking snail mail to the post office or risking your last quarter on a call to someone who might leave you hanging on the dial tone.